The Fashion Safehouse (A Site for Refuge and Critical Pedagogy)
Let us, at least temporarily, dismount the idealistic illusion that fashion is merely a tool to celebrate human reproduction and the beauty of life, and instead see how fashion is a social weapon for man in his quest for dominion, power and popularity. Then fashion is the violent demarcation and unabashed elitism of the powerful, the adorned regime of hate and greed, the rule of the strong, the law of beauty, attraction and popularity at the cost of the ugly, the unattractive, the poor. Under this regime the spiteful paparazzi photographs, or the loathing comments on celebrity forums and social media, are not exceptions but the very pleasure of fashion, the gleeful humiliation of the other.
From this perspective, fashion is an all-out social and civil war, happily armed by the fashion industry. The values of fashion seep into every social strata and space, every social relation, every position. Even those who say they don’t care about clothes can still be heard saying, “I would never wear that!” How can we find a safe space, a shelter for peace and rest, a place of alternative resistance?
For a philosopher like Paul Virilio, the safehouse is the basis to challenge a culture of fear. In his book The Administration of Fear (2012), Virilio sees the safehouse as a secure platform from which to build critical thinking, judgment and responsibility, and a point of departure for action. He draws parallels to his own experiences growing up in occupied France in WWII and expounds that resistance must “first [take] refuge at the heart of the micro-collectivity of the family, then the building or the town” in order to get out of the authoritarian administration of fear.
How do we find a safe space to experiment with new approaches, responses and behaviors in the face of weaponized aesthetics and ideals? And how do we do this without triggering new arms races, where we need to buy into fashion even more in order to feel "safe" from aesthetic harassment?
The Safehouse Blueprint, 2013. Digital montage.
A fashion safehouse is not a place beyond fashion, but a space for reflection at the fringes of its regime. It is a training facility where oppression can be displaced, at least temporarily, with a shared and sincere attention to human togetherness. The safehouse should not become a place of new oppression, under a new style or “subcultural” dictatorship, but must avoid competitive and fearful reactions to the logic of big-F-Fashion. Instead, within the framework of the project, the aim is to manifest a hypothetical platform for alternative fashion production and strategic overview of how to escape from the dominant logic of big-F-Fashion (designer as guru and idol, styled/planned obsolescence, the mechanisms of fast fashion, media hype, style competition and status anxiety etc).
Utopian as it may seem, it is a manifestation of hope for new ways to make, distribute, consumer and co-exist with fashion. But as Oscar Wilde said, "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at".
Technically, the project takes the shape of a site for critical pedagogy, a Fashion Safehouse, as part of a fictional or potential resistance, not too unlike the 19th century Underground Railroad, the escape route of networked safehouses for slaves towards the free states and Canada, or the resistance safehouses in France in WWII guiding downed allied pilots back to the UK. Yet this safehouse is one for fashion drop-outs, who do not share the values of the dominant logic of fashion but want to escape in order to manifest other possibilities of fashion freedom: small spaces of of utopia.
The safehouse is a building (a simple plywood construction resembling a cabin, but situated indoors) and a site for critical pedagogy in fashion. It is a site of refuge, both for contemplation and independence, both for inner struggle and outer struggle, not too unlike Thoreau’s cabin at Walden. And like Thoreau’s cabin, it is a site for asking critical questions about society, values and resistance. Already in the first pages of Walden, Thoreau comes to discuss fashion, as he points out how dependent and controlled we are in society by the opinions of others. As Thoreau notices, clothes and fashion play an important role in our society, producing a lot of anxiety, and they may even act as a cover for conscience,
”No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch in his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.” (Thoreau 1854/1992: 14)
Fashion Safehouse, 2014. Training workshop day three with Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen, at Fashioning Cascadia, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, Portland OR June 2014.
However, the object of the fashion system “is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.” (19) Thoreau, partisans, resistance fighters, escaping slaves, all seek shelter in order to break free from domination and test the boundaries of autonomy. For people engaged in fashion, autonomy is a fundamental paradox, as fashion is a phenomenon that rests equally on creativity, collaboration, conformity and coercion, thus the “problem of participation” is an issue at the foundation of any position in fashion. The safehouse is the site for hands-on and practical examination of this core issue: In the practices of fashion, what is the relationship between individual and community, how does this relationship manifest in collaborations, and ultimately, how can we create our own community “scenes” of fashion?
The establishment of safe spaces is the foundation of a pro-active resistance: a safe place to start building alternatives to the dominant logic and regime of violence. The safehouse is a temporary base with one’s back covered, a platform for discussion, a boot camp for training and a node in a network of wider social mobilization. A Fashion Safehouse is not a place beyond fashion, but a place where it is collectively and collaboratively disarmed and displaced with a sincere attention to the human capabilities and values of the participants. It is a place from where to build an own stance: a resistance.
Fashion Safehouse, 2014. Training workshop day two at Konstfack, Stockholm, April 2014.
In summer 2014 a Fashion Safehouse was established at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, OR. Through the course of four days, participants built the Safehouse, made it into a “clashroom,” (or war room), discussed and developed fashion survival skills, produced signs and tools for symbolic warfare (such as flags and insignia), organized a “war-drobe,” (or uniform: a repair kit), from upcycled and re-fashioned materials, created tactical media and media strategies for alternative fashion, and organized further cells of resistance in a future network of fashion safehouses through printed media including ‘zines, pamphlets, and posters.
The Fashion Fighter's Manual (photocopied zine in limited edition) contructed from CIA fighter's manual and with quotes from Thoreau's Walden, assembled at Fashioning Cascadia, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, Portland OR June 2014. [download pdf]
Sabotage Normcore/Fashion Safehouse, 2014. Sticker produced with Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen at Fashioning Cascadia, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, Portland OR June 2014. Private collection.
Under the Thoreau-inspired slogan "Sabotage Normcore", a vision emerged of a true "fashion for all" - Moda Sunt Communia - an anarchist incarnation of dress production and shared individual as well as communal self-esteem. Under an arch of transcendentalist self-reliance, of physical, spiritual and symbolic inter-dependence, a true community of fashion can be formed. At least between four walls.
Fashion Safehouse was first prototyped as a workshop with the "Organizing Discourse" course at Konstfack (Stockholm) in spring 2014, and later became a room for resident artists at the ”Fashioning Cascadia” exhibition at Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, OR, in the summer 2014
The suggested training program of the fashion safehouses is under development, but the Portland workshop consisted of the following steps:
- Day one: participants constructed the Fashion Safehouse in Museum of Contemporary Craft, and hosted the first special guest Bill Dieter, of Terrazign Studio, for a dialogue on tools, repair and autonomy, and about the concept of safehouses. The aim of the day was to build the house and create a vision for it’s conceptual underpinnings and tactical relevance.
- Day two: marked the beginning of instruction in Safehouse activities. With special guest Liam Drain, participants worked collaboratively to design and construct insignia for the Safehouse including a logo and flag and discussed the question of inclusive autonomy.
- Day three: participants began to produce printed media commenting on the safehouse and Thoreau’s perspective on dress, shelter and autonomy – we produced zines and pamphlets together with special guests Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen.
- Day four: the Safehouse activities culminated with the completion of individual and collective projects, and discussed how we could establish a shared narrative of a global insurrectional fashion network of future fashion safehouses.
Thoreau , Henry David (1992) Walden and Resistance to Civil Government, New York: W. W. Norton
Virilio, Paul (2012) The Administration of Fear, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)